If time has overtaken you, Clarko, thanks for one special piece of it

Writing for The Age, Barney Zwartz offers a moving, personal tribute to outgoing Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson.

This week brought the news that Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson will be leaving the club, at the end of next season if not earlier. It is apparently not his choice, but he has handled himself with extraordinary dignity since Tuesday’s announcement.

For Hawks supporters like me the world seems to have tilted just slightly on its axis. Clarkson, who has led the Hawks to four AFL premierships in 18 years at the club, is universally acknowledged as the greatest coach of the modern era. His passion is still intact.

His reputation is that of a pugnacious straight-shooter – remember the footage of him punching a hole in the wall of the MCG coaches’ box?

But in the hurly-burly of professional sport it is easy to forget footballers and coaches are not only professionals but people, who often care desperately. Yes, they are well rewarded, but I cannot believe it’s about the money – rejection always hurts. Yet sportspeople, like politicians, know that they are fortunate if they can leave in a manner of their own choosing.

I’ve met Clarkson once, briefly, in May 2011, when a children’s charity arranged for four of my sons to visit a Hawthorn training session. We got to meet men who became Hawthorn immortals: Buddy Franklin, Sam Mitchell, Jarryd Roughead and Brad Sewell among others. At the end I took a quick snap of Clarkson embracing my youngest son, Sam.

I sent it to the club by way of thanks, and they sent it back with a kind message on the photo signed by Clarkson: “To Sam. #1 fan. Go Hawks! A. Clarkson.” My family will never forget his generosity, finding time to give a sick, small boy some attention in the midst of his busy routine. Sam died a month later of leukaemia. That framed picture sits by our dining table.

It’s hard for anyone, let alone one of the all-time greats, to realise their club no longer wants them. That time overtakes us all, ready or not. I’m not sure what sort of faith drives Clarkson, but it will certainly have been challenged this week.

I hope he can take some consolation from the knowledge that his life and his contribution is about much more than football, as the perspective of a bit of distance from this week will show him.

Thanks again Clarko, and all the very best.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.